"He had been suddenly jerked from the heart of civilization and flung into the heart of things primordial. No lazy, sun-kissed life was this, with nothing to do but loaf and be bored. Here was neither peace, nor rest, nor a moment's safety. All was confusion and action, and every moment life and limb were in peril. There was imperative need to be constantly alert; for these dogs and men were not town dogs and men."
- Jack London, The Call of the Wild
The Indonesia Trip
Part 1: Resa and the Bataks
Part 2: Satu, Dua, Tiga...
Part 3: Happiness Is Within
Part 4: Las Buenas Duran Poco
"I am Indonesia," she said to me.
"Where you going now?"
I told her that I was flying to Medan because I wanted to spend several days in Lake Toba. This was the very beginning of my three-week holiday megatrip to Indonesia, and I was very excited.
"I have home at Lake Toba. You staying with my family there. Okay?"
I said okay. And that was that.
We continued on through the jetway towards our plane preparing to leave Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, and I was wondering what I had just gotten myself into. I found my seat towards the back of the plane, away from this mystery girl, and had some time to mull over these recent developments. For better or for worse, when I travel I am, as a rule, suspicious of overt or unwarranted generosity. I am also generally suspicious of anyone who approaches me speaking passable English. I had just encountered both
But she looked innocent enough. She was a tiny, plump, dark-skinned Indonesian girl, barely reaching 5 feet tall even with a pair of rediculous high heels on. She had a contagious excess of excitement and energy about her, and a shining, ear-to-ear smile seemed to be permenantly imprinted on her face.
Could this be legit? Did she really just offer to let me stay at her family's home in Lake Toba? Or was this some incredibly elaborate scheme intended to part the unassuming, trusting tourist from all his possessions even before he reached his destination? It was hard to believe that, having already met and talked to this girl. I was intrigued.
Even if it was a scam, I had my wits about me, and I was now operating on a 'code red security alert'. No one was going to nick my bags or my money, ruining my three-week vacation before it even began. That was not going to happen.
So with the most suspecting and leery of cautions, I decided to investigate further. Why would this girl invite a total
stranger to stay at her home? What were her intentions? What was her story? Who is she? I didn't even know her name.
MedanHer name was Resa - like a short version of Teresa. After landing in Medan around 10:30pm and navigating the immigration lines I met her again at the exit of the terminal. She had collected a company of two other travelers in the meantime. They were a Dutch couple, about my age, who were roughly two months into a six-month tour of Southeast Asia, and they had just come from Bangkok as well.
Resa told us that there was a guesthouse not far from the airport where she always stayed and could guarantee us a fair price. When she told us the name of the place, I immediately recognized it from my guide book, and the tension in the back of my mind eased just a bit.
So with three wide-eyed foreigners making their first footfalls in a new country, Resa led us to a taxi, negotiated the fare, and crammed into the back with us as we sped off into the dank, seedy, industrial jungle that is Medan.
Let's just get this out in the open right now. There is simply no reason at all that any clear-minded traveler who values his or her own personal health and safety would spend any more time than is absolutely necessary in Medan. The city is a sprawling conglomeration of derelict everything - a roiling primordial soup of dirt, filth, pollution, and a hundred different shades of the color gray, all underscored by the loud and dissonant soundtrack of incessant construction, honking horns, and the raucous dance music that beats through the thin walls of every other streetside five-and-dime. The only reason travelers pass through Medan at all is because it offers the only mentionable international airport on the whole massive island, and thus is for many travelers the gateway to Lake Toba and the rest of North Sumatra. With that said, any amount of time was still too much time to spend in this place.
The next morning I woke up in Medan and it was raining. It was a heavy, unambiguous sort of rain. The kind of rain that says, "Welcome to Medan" with a sneer and a grunt. I sat out on the balcony of my second story room and looked out at what Resa assured me was downtown Medan. The only building that reached higher than my current elevation was the whitish mosque to my immediate right. In front of me was an endless sea of ramshackle abodes, crisscrossed by sheet metal roofs and clothes lines dangling saturated laundry. I couldn't tell where the horizon met the sky. There was too much gray.
I couldn't wait to leave this dystopia behind. My destination was Lake Toba, but before I could be on my way, there was one little item that required completion. I needed to book a domestic flight from Medan to Java for later in the week. I mentioned this to Resa, and suddenly her eager and accomodating helpfulness began to crack through my wall of cynicism.
"Yes no problem," she said. "We going to travel agent. I helping you get cheap price don't worry."
"Great!" I replied. "Thanks so much!"
"It's okay yeah. After that we stopping at my home because I needing clothes for Christmas."
"Huh? You have a home here also?"
What I would discover later was that Resa had 'homes' and 'family' all over North Sumatra. Apparently the custom is that anyone you develop any sort of close relationship with becomes part of your 'family', and whatever place they call home becomes your home as well. Biologically, Resa only had one mother and two sisters. And she really only had one true home - with her mother on Samosir Island in Lake Toba. Keep that in mind over the course of this story and it should alleviate any possible confusion that might arrise over the nature of her extensive family and residences.
After parting ways with the Dutch couple (they were going to see the orangutans of Bukit Lawang and then continuing on to Aceh in the far north) and booking my plane ticket to Yogyakarta, we made a stop at a place that Resa had stayed at for a couple of months while she went to University in Medan. She needed to exchange some of the clothes she had with the ones she wanted to bring to Lake Toba.
She warned me that she hadn't been here in almost six months and that she didn't like the place because it was dirty. I could tell that she was self conscious about whatever it was I was about to see. She assumed that as a westerner, I was not accustomed to witnessing the dark, sad living conditions that pass as normal in the third world. However, after living in Asia for almost a year, I had seen quite a bit, and I assured her that I valued experiencing the real world and the real lives of the people in the places I visit.
She had to break the lock on the plywood door with a rock to get in. I peered into the room just for a second. Within was a damp, dark alcove of a room. A naked matress was on the floor next to an old radio. Clothes, magazines, and other detritus were flung around the room, on the floor and the walls. Resa quickly scrounged around the room for the items she was seeking while I waited outside in the company of her old neighbors. They each took a turn to practice saying "Where are you come from?" with me, and to each I responded equally. I asked their names, but none understood.
Almost instantly we were back outside again and on our way to the bus station. It had been a long day of errand running. It was now mid-afternoon and the torrential rain had not let up for a moment. We arrived at the bus station and had to wait the better part of an hour for our bus to arrive. Eventually we were able to board into our transport which was really more of a big van than a bus and was flamboyantly painted in greens and yellows and purples. The end result looked suprisingly like The Mystery Machine from Scooby Doo. Resa wanted to sit in the back row because she didn't want to be able to see the manic and psychotic driving maneuvers that she knew the driver would attempt. If that wasn't disconcerting enough, the back row seats seemed to be composed of a yoga mat draped over iron bars, complemented by leg space that a six-year-old girl would complain about. In addition, a few bus station workers had begun hoisting and securing what appeared to be an automobile transmission to the roof of the van. This journey was not going to be fun.
And the condition of the van was the least of my problems. The roads in Sumatra are quite simply the worst roads I have ever experienced. Easily the worst in Southeast Asia. That's kind of like being the fattest kid at fat camp. The worst of the worst. Roads in Sumatra consist more of potholes and pitfalls than of actual road. They're not bumpy - they're jarring, violent, and endless. What's more is that the roads are generally barely wide enough for two cars to pass safely. Add to that the constant need to overtake slower traffic, unexpected obstacles like cows and boulders, and the wildly steep inclines of the mountainous northern region, and maybe you can begin to understand the dangers of driving in Sumatra.
Roughly six or seven hours later we came to a stop in the town of Pangururan on Samosir island. I tumbled out of the van and kissed the ground passionately. Resa's home was in a village called Simanindo, so we had about a twenty-minute tuktuk ride through the brisk, chilled night to her home, but I didn't care. Absolutely anything was preferable to another minute in the back of that van.
Lake TobaIt was very late by the time we arrived at her home, so Resa had to wake her mother up to let us in. Her mother was just as you might expect - an old, traditional Batak woman who didn't speak any English. She was a teacher at the school down the street. Like all the other locals living on Samosir Island, she apparently was also involved in farming - judging from the truckloads of corn that were dumped and contained on her front porch. She was of course very hospitable. Even though the hour was approaching midnight, she wanted very much to serve me a meal. However, I graciously declined. I was far too exhausted to even think about eating.
The next morning I awoke to discover that on the other side of the bedroom wall was a chicken coop.
In places where agriculture means sustenance, everyone wakes up with the sunrise - all the animals, all the residents, and the one foreigner from the other side of the world who had never woken up next to a farm before. Daylight means work time. It means time to get busy.
So with the riotous cacophony of farm animals just feet away, I crawled out of bed and saw to
how I could put myself to use with the morning chores. The animals had all ready been fed, so Mama Batak put Resa and I in charge of breakfast for the family. Rather than cooking, we walked down the street to the nearest warung and ordered up some Batak spaghetti - a noodle dish that Resa lauded as a specialty of North Sumatra, but tasted suspiciously similar to the Laksa I had sampled in Singapore's Chinatown. Either way it was delicious, and I was glad to be able to contribute to the morning's rituals.
Resa had a full day of sight-seeing scheduled for the day. We had only a limited time in Lake Toba, and she wanted to show me as much as she could of her home island. After breakfast we walked about 50 meters down the hill behind her house to the lake for some early morning swimming.
The lake, as vast as it is, stays at a very comfortable - almost warm - temperature year round, due to the volcanic activity beneath and all around it. So even though the morning air held a bit of a bite, the water was perfect for swimming. The only thing that made me a tad apprehensive was that to each side of our swimming spot, Batak women were doing laundry, cleaning dishes, and bathing their children. For them the lake was clearly not a means of recreation, but something much more practical. For them it was the bath tub, kitchen sink, and washing machine, and I wasn't sure how tactful it was for me to be swimming in it.
We returned to the house after the brief swim, and began to prepare for the busy day ahead of us. There was still one sizeable issue looming that we hadn't really tackled. Lake Toba is massive, and so is Samosir Island in the middle of it. Walking around the island is out of the question, and even with the use of a bicycle, the distances would prove too great to see much of anything in one day. So the only option was to secure a means a private transportation. Translation ~ Motorbike.
Now I had never driven a motorbike before. I knew the gist of how it was supposed to work - with the hand controlled accelerator, right foot rear brake, right hand front brake, and left foot gear shifts - but I had never put my theories to the test. But when one of Resa's neighbors rolled up to the front door delivering a free motorbike for the day, it was time to learn.
"You learning to drive bike yeah?" Resa asked. "I drive but hard with two people. My leg not so long like you."
And it was true. When sitting on the motorbike, her legs barely touched the ground. It was clear that if I wanted to do or see anything beyond Resa's front porch today, I needed to master the bike.
"Okay!" I said. "How do I turn it on?"
With the help of Resa's neighbor, I got accustomed to the switches and gears and pedals and took the bike for a test drive up the street a ways and back. All-in-all my maiden voyage went smoothly. It took me a couple more laps to realize that I could come to a complete stop before shifting gears all the way down again, and by that time I was feeling reasonably comfortable in the driver's seat.
"Alright Resa, I think I'll manage as long as we take it slow and easy."
"Yeah no problem. You going slow and I helping you too."
So she hopped on the back, and we motored down the road at a snail's pace. Truthfully, Samosir was not a bad place to learn to drive a motorbike. Traffic was almost nonexistent, especially in the viscinity of Resa's home. The road was straight and long, and I could see curves and obstacles coming a mile away. I kept the bike in second and third gear, and all was well.
Our first stop was at the Batak museum just up the road where Resa wanted me to see the traditional Batak dancing. This place was clearly set up for tourists, and I generally have little interest for such places, but it obviously represented something special for Resa. The museum held a nice collection of Batak history and recreated certain old Batak customs. This was her heritage and I could appreciate that.
The Bataks are an ethnic group unique to North Sumatra around Medan and Lake Toba (not as far north as Aceh). They have a rich culture, distinct from the numerous others in Indonesia, as well as their own language. While they are of course Indonesian citizens, their identity is first and foremost Batak. They only speak Bahasa with non-Bataks, many still live in the traditional boat-shaped houses, and their food, music, and TV is all specifically Batak.
After watching the dance show at the museum, we were back on the bike and heading towards the hot springs. We drove around the north perimeter of the island, crossed the narrow isthmus that connects Samosir to the mainland, and spent about an hour lounging in and around the volcanically-heated hot springs.
It was now around lunch time, so we motored back the way we came and stopped at a little roadside diner. This was a barebones, no chairs, no silverware, sit-on-your-butt kind of place. No frills – just good food. Batak country is predominantly Christian, which means its one of the few places in Indonesia outside of Bali where pork is readily available. So we settled down to a wonderful lunch of rice, sambal, and grilled pork and chicken.
“This village chicken. Not like KFC,” Resa advised.
What she meant was that the chicken we were feasting upon had only hours before been one of those pesky foul that I had been dodging on the motorbike all morning. Or it could have been one of those mindless roosters that woke me up at the crack of dawn that morning. It certainly was leaner and firmer – but it was still chicken.
After lunch, we made a stop at the ‘White Sand Beach’ where we got caught in an afternoon thunderstorm. Neither one of us felt like swimming, so the storm offered a welcome break. We relaxed under the shelter of a beach front café, sipping cups of Batak coffee, and I commandeered an unclaimed guitar and attempted to compose a few rainy day melodies.
When the rain finally let up, we decided to cruise our way back to Resa’s home. The sun would be setting soon and it was time to get the motorbike back to its owner.
We pulled up and parked next to Resa's front porch of corn. Her mother was sitting with a group of neighbors in the patio of the next house. We joined the group, and although I don't speak Batak, it was obvious the topic of conversation turned instantly to the presence of the light-skinned stranger.
I sat for a while, trying my best to follow the course of the meeting through hand gestures, facial expressions, and body language. Resa would occasionally offer a rough translation of what they were talking about. At one point she turned to me and asked, "You ever drinking Jungle Juice?" At the drop of the words 'Jungle Juice' everyone in the company fell into a fit of giggles and chuckles.
"No" I said. "But I have an idea of what it is."
It was clear they were talking about some locally brewed moonshine of sorts. I suddenly saw the direction this evening was going to take and knew I was in for a wild experience... I had no idea.
Sure enough, one of the neighbors slipped away on his motorbike, only to return ten minutes later with numerous plastic bags filled with a sloshy, milky looking liquid.
It was palm wine.
I had read about and seen the stuff on TV enough to know vaguely what it was. They drink it in the poorest parts of the world because it essentially offers the cheapest means to get drunk. You think Steel Reserve or Old English or Taka Vodka is a cheap drunk. No, my friend – take a few various and choice parts of a palm tree and let them ferment for a few weeks. Then you’ve got a cheap drunk.
The plastic bags were opened, cups were brought out, and drinks were poured. Of course the largest portion was reserved for me, the guest. There was a cheers and it was bottoms up for all. And from there the night got silly.
Poor little Resa didn't stand a chance against that jungle tonic. One cup and she got noticeably quieter and her eye lids looked like they weighed a kilo each. The family and the neighbors got progressively more rowdy and boisterous. Eventually we all took to rolling around with laughter with even the faintest instigation. Around this time someone decided the party should move indoors, so we gathered up the remaining cups of palm wine and stumbled into Resa's home.
They had a large and somewhat modern CD player and stereo in their home, so obviously one of the neighbors was immediately loading into it one of Lake Toba's hottest Batak music tracks. The jams flowed out and everyone was on their feet. I
found myself in the middle of a small circle of Batak men, all attempting to teach me the proper form of traditional Batak dancing, and all to the ecstatic amusement of Resa's mother and all her female company.
More neighbors arrived offering plates of fried casava root and cornbread. Now this shindig was really kicking. Resa was enjoying a second wind and was, of course, the life of the party.
Through it all, my mind managed a brief moment of objective clarity. An out-of-body experience - me looking down on myself and the surreal scene and marveling at the sheer absurdity, the improbability of the whole thing. I was half-drunk off a moonshine jungle liquor, dancing with a crowd of local Lake Toba Bataks - most of whom were at least as old as my parents, and none of whom spoke a lick of English - on an island the size of Singapore, in the middle of the largest volcanic lake in the world, smack in the center of rural North Sumatra... Wow.
If only my friends and family could've seen me then.
Again I woke just before the breaking dawn – this time intentionally. My tongue was still heavily lacquered by the after effects of palm wine, and my mind struggled through the injustice of rising before the sun.
I was suddenly outside, down the street, and ascending a rocky hill that we had scouted out the previous evening, and Resa was leading the way. We reached the top just as the sun’s first rays were pushing clear of the cloudy horizon, and from that summit I gazed down on a beautifully old and hard world.
This was not my world. I had been catapulted into the primitive – an original land where things remained how they had been more or less for thousands of years. This place was a model of the primal world where nature created the laws – not man. I saw the horribly temperamental volcanoes, the jagged mountain crests over which rolled a low, heavy blanket of mist eager to expend the energy bestowed unto it during the night. The sky was a nascent sky, exploding clouds out from its primordial depths and flashing brilliantly the hues of ice and fire and life.
This marvelous day we were leaving Lake Toba. Our stay had been short and sweet, but Resa wanted to meet some other people in her extended ‘family’ in a town called Tebing Tinggi, and she invited me to come along. I didn’t know what else I would’ve done in Lake Toba other than a lot of relaxing, so as usual I opted for the wilder experience and followed Resa to her second or third ‘home’ in North Sumatra.
It took a ferry, a van, and an old crowded bus to get to Tebing, but eventually we stepped out into that loud, frantic town. With my first steps a thousand gaping eyes fixed on me, watching each breath, each movement, as if I was some extraterrestrial that had just crash landed right in the middle of their lives. Almost immediately I realized I was in a kind of place that I had never been before.
Tebing TinggiThis was not a touristic place - quite the opposite in fact. This was a place where people had never seen a foreigner before in the flesh. Even though Tebing sits on the coast along the Trans-Sumatran Highway about 90 minutes from Medan, there is simply no reason a traveler would knowingly chose to stop here. There is no bus station, no guesthouses, and certainly no tourism office.
What first appears to be a terribly dirty, clamorous industrial town, is actually not that at all. Tebing is a decent sized rice farming and fishing community that has seen a bit of development due to the highway that now runs through the heart of town. But to move away from this artery in any direction is to experience the true Tebing. Buildings drop away, and rice fields flow on for miles like a vibrant green quilt laid under the pillowy, gray December clouds. The ocean and beaches are only a short drive away where fishing is still the only suggestion of business.
We walked about five minutes down one busy road away from the highway, where lived a couple more of Resa's 'brothers' and 'sisters.' There were actually two families living side-by-side in two separate houses. Each family consisted more or less of a middle-aged couple and a few young children, but there were many more people and children running around the area than I could account for. Throughout all the introductions and greetings, the crowd of kids following me around grew and grew. They would tip-toe and sneak around as if I didn't see them, and then eventually one would muster the courage to shout one of the few English phrases they remembered from school, such as "Hey mister!" or "What your name?" or "Where are you come from?"
I realized quickly that here in Tebing there wasn't much that was going to offer me material entertainment, but instead I was going to be offering the entertainment for Tebing.
After things settled down a bit, it was time to make dinner plans. Resa had planned to have a big feast of grilled fish to celebrate her homecoming of sorts.
On the way to Tebing she had asked me, "You can cooking the fish?"
"Yes, of course! Do you have a grill or something? How do you want to cook them?"
"Yeah no problem. We making grill for you. I making sambal special very spicy."
So with it decided that I would be grilling the fish, a couple of us ventured out in the family's tuktuk to a local fish farm. I had the honor of chosing the lucky guys that would be our dinner. I didn't want to seem skimmpy or ungracious, so I bought 18 of the finest fish in stock - all for about $3 USD.
When we returned to their home, preparations began for the feast.
"So where's the grill?" I asked.
"Oh we making it now in the kitchen."
"Huh? Sorry? In the where...?
Indeed. From two cinderblocks and a small pile of wooden debris, the family constructed an impromptu grill on the floor in the middle of the kitchen. And that's where I was going to cook dinner for the family.
"What about the smoke?"
"Yeah no problem. The smoke going away from there." She pointed to a small hole in the corner of the ceiling.
The hole proved to be inadequate, as you might have expected. Pretty soon everyone's eyes were red, and we were all reeking of smoke, but this was clearly not the first time indoor grilling had occured, so I didn't question it. The fish were finally done, and we all tore into the hot tender meat with only our hands, still sitting on the concrete floor around the cook fire. Resa's sambal was delicious.
That night Resa took me to a pre-Christmas church service just down the street, and things got really crazy. I'm not sure if Resa foresaw the kind of disturbance my presence would make, but I certainly did. I knew what was coming for me. Resa just wanted to sing some Christmas songs.
The instant I stepped out of the shadows onto the church steps, an assembly of children and teenagers formed around me, each one sporting some sort of camera phone. Things got wild when someone actually asked if they could have a picture with me. Suddenly everyone wanted to pose with the white-faced alien. The crowd was pushing, swaying, groping - all for a chance to squeeze in next to this incarnated myth before the shutters snapped.
Resa was at a loss. She waited patiently for a while, then eventually grabbed me and dragged me into the church and pushed me into a back row piew. But of course the throngs followed me in, causing a rediculous spectacle in the middle of the service, and suddenly the entire church was staring back at me, trying to figure out what the hell was going on.
The service was cut short and in a karaoke-esque fashion, people were allowed to come up to the stage and sing Christmas songs. Resa bolted to the stage with the hint of an open mic, leaving me to the ravenous horde. The minister made his way to the back and greeted me excitedly. God bless that wonderful man for not asking for a picture with me.
The next day was much lower key than the previous night's antics. Resa took me on a tour of the rice fields. We spent some time swimming at the beach. We ate a delicious spread of the Malacca Strait's best seafood. I spent hours playing with the kids back home. They loved seeing their pictures on my camera display, especially after the jumping pictures. Overall, it was a wonderful wind down to this bizzare, surreal week.
Over the past five days, nothing had gone to my original plans - nothing. I never planned on bathing each day with a plastic bucket or eating every meal with my hands. But that's part of traveling. When once-in-a-lifetime opportunities present themselves, you don't pass them up. When an English speaking local, familiar with the tourism industry, and
accustomed to dealing with foreigners offers you the unparelleled generosity and hospitality of her home and family, you go with it - no questions asked. Because a year or ten years later you're not going to remember how perfectly scheduled your trip was or how comfortable your hotel was. You're going to remember that time you got ripped with a whole Batak village, or that time you cooked dinner for a family of eight over a cook fire built on the kitchen floor, or that time a six-year-old Indonesian girl called you "Uncle White Hair."
You remember those things that could've never happened to you anywhere else. It's those things that sear your mind - those memories that bring a tear to your eye when you recall how absurd and unbelievable and totally unique they were.
So to Resa and to all the Batak people with whom I shared company, I'd like to say thank you. You made this week incredible. You made this journey something I will remember forever.